The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Assassination Bureau

I can't think of a movie that surprised me more recently than 1969's The Assassination Bureau. The Netflix description of an international company that performs murders/assassinations for hire sounded like a drama, maybe an action movie. Or as I figured out, maybe that's just my head jumping to conclusions. I assumed it was a drama or action flick. So imagine my surprise when I found out it instead was a period piece mixed in with a screwball comedy. Oddly enough? It works.

In the early 1910s in London, an aspiring journalist, Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg), approaches a newspaper headed by Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) with a story idea. She has evidence of a murder-for-hire company that could date back centuries and has managed to arrange a meeting with its leader, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed). Her catch? She intends to put a contract on Ivan himself. Seeing a chance to do some housecleaning among his own company, Ivan oddly enough agrees, challenging the other members of Assassination Bureau, Limited to a proposal. Can he kill all of them before they kill him? Secrets and twists await, more than Sonya originally counted on.

Can you see now why I was more than a little confused? From director Basil Dearden, the story certainly doesn't scream out screwball comedy. But using the jumping off point of a murder-for-hire company and its inherent very dark comedy, 'Assassination' somehow and some way works. I was expecting a late 1960s thriller set in modern times and got the complete opposite, a period piece set in 1910s Europe. The story bounces from London, Paris, Vienna, Venice and Zurich with a colorful lavish look. The sets are impressive, the costuming period accurate, and the screwball aspect not overdone thankfully. 'Dark' and 'screwball' don't always work in terms of comedy, but Dearden's film manages to put the two together.

It is a unique plot device of having a "company" like the Assassination Bureau at work, keeping tabs on the world. Reed's Ivan leads a committee of international representatives from around Europe and Asia including Germany, England, France, Austria, Russia, Switzerland and several more. Their only policy is simple...there must be a moral reason for killing. Ivan lives up to that standard, but his committee doesn't live and die by its principles. Semi-twist coming....Savalas is his vice commissioner. Come on, did you think Telly Savalas was around to play a newspaper editor? His Lord Bostwick is interested in cash, control and power, not Ivan's ideological beliefs. Some of the Bureau's members include General von Pinck (Curd Jurdgens), the militaristic German, Lucoville (Philippe Noiret), the woman-chasing Frenchman, Weiss (Warren Mitchell), the efficient Swiss, Spado (Clive Revill), the life-loving Italian, and Muntzof (Vernon Dobtcheff), the moping Russian among a few others. Comedy, drama or action, 'Assassination' gets points for originality.

The murder-for-hire story was one thing. I can buy that as a dark comedy. But as that surprise washed over me, I think the biggest reason for my thinking was the casting of Oliver Reed. A notorious partier/drinker/carouser, Reed does not strike me as someone to star in a dark comedy with romantic comedy undertones. He was typically the definition of intense so it was a welcome surprise to see him play a lighter role, and he doesn't disappoint. He's genuinely funny, can woo Rigg's Sonya, and is a master of disguise as he unleashes his attacks on his committee members turned opponents. Rigg as Sonya is the aspiring journalist who doesn't seem to figure out that both sides are playing a point. She makes a good pair with Reed too as they jump from country to country in Europe. Also look for Italian beauty Annabella Incontrera as Senora Spado, the wife of one of the Bureau members who's got her own plans.

With obviously a much darker edge, 'Assassination' reminded me in many ways of 1965's The Great Race. The highlights are the impressively scaled set pieces. The intro to the Bureau has shades of a comedic James Bond movie while a madcap chase through Lucoville's high class house of ill repute gets the screwball aspect of the chase going at full speed. The comedy is often off-screen, allowing Reed, Rigg and Savalas to sell the humor with their reactions. Resorting to some action genre conventions, the finale is full of action as Reed stumbles onto Savalas' plan to take over Europe, a nice tie-in for history fans with the start of WWI and a zeppelin playing a key role. So what can I say? Sometimes the movies that surprise you are the best ones. An underrated, funny flick with a great cast.

The Assassination Bureau <---Youtube clip (1969): ***/****

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